T. F. Torrance on Karl Barth and “the temptation of orthodoxy”

It has been a long time—altogether too long!—since I’ve posted about Torrance here at DET. (For interested parties, the last post on TFT was from 2010 and was entitled “Torrance on the Church’s Relation to Christ”.) Well, I’ve been reading Torrance intensively again lately in preparation for a paper that I will give at a conference before too long. (Never fear, gentle readers: I will indubitably post an abstract of that paper before its presentation.) Rather predictably, I’ve found a gem from Torrance that I want to share with you. (Coincidentally, what’s with all the parenthetical comments today?)

Torrance is concerned in the following passage with Barth’s “dogmatic turn,” so to speak, and specifically with Barth’s engagement with Protestant scholasticism. Indeed, he is concerned with how Barth’s own work takes on certain scholastic characteristics. So Torrance endeavors to provide a little differentiation so that his readers will understand that there is, nonetheless, an important difference between whatever sort of scholasticism Barth is up to and the old scholasticism of ‘Protestant orthodoxy.’

Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology, 1910–1931 (London: T & T Clark International, 2004), 101–02. As always, bold is mine.
It must be said that the temptation of orthodoxy, and all scholasticism, for all their appearance of objectivity, is to fall a prey to their own subjectivities through converting the truths of the Word of God into rationalised objects. In so far as the objective descriptions of the Truth are confounded with or mistaken for the Truth, and do not fall under its questioning and judgment, they easily become assimilated to the prevailing intellectual trends and fall under the power of its patterns of thought and speech and their philosophical presuppositions. That is what happened, for example, in the medieval world, when Roman theology made extensive use of neo-Aristotelian thought-forms in which to express and articulate its doctrine, for in point of fact the philosophical presuppositions carried by those thought-forms triumphed over the doctrine and have permanently influenced and altered it. Barth’s studies in the history of Protestant theology convinced him that when it took over so much of the mediaeval intellectual apparatus with which to articulate doctrine in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it became overloaded with philosophical presuppositions, and so compromised itself with natural theology, and a supposedly enlightened understanding, that it easily fell in with the stream of philosophical development, at length assimilating into itself or become assimilated to Cartesian subjectivism, in which the objective truths of the Word of God were converted into psychological objects, to a much greater degree than many modern champions of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century orthodoxy would care to admit.
This sort of analysis amply bears all evidence of Torrance’s characteristic idiosyncrasies, but it nonetheless carries with it a certain not unimportant explanatory power. Besides, “the temptation of orthodoxy” is - quite simply - an excellent turn of phrase.

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Comments

"That is what happened, for example, in the medieval world, when Roman theology made extensive use of neo-Aristotelian thought-forms in which to express and articulate its doctrine, for in point of fact the philosophical presuppositions carried by those thought-forms triumphed over the doctrine and have permanently influenced and altered it."

Is that what really happened, in Aquinas especially? I'm not so sure. Or at least, it is an assessment that I might want to seriously qualify.
Matthew Frost said…
Yeah, I agree with Scott in that Thomas is far from inadequate to handling Aristotle et al. He has chosen these thought forms, not incidentally, but with an eye to their use value. And Aristotle as filtered through the Islamic and Christian scholastics is used mostly as a ground for what it is rational to think, not for what it is justifiable to believe. The synthesis of the Philosopher and the Theologian (Augustine) is done quite intentionally, and Barth for his own purposes may well be happy with Thomas' consistent betrayal of Aristotle at every point that matters.
"...used mostly as a ground for what it is rational to think, not for what it is justifiable to believe"

That's a helpful distinction. Thanks!

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